In wake of tragedies, neighbors open homes to Vern students

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Steve Gardner is director of the "Home Away from Home" group, an initiative among Foxhall residents to open their doors and kitchens to homesick students and ease their transitions to GW.

Thanksgiving break may be a month away, but students living on the Mount Vernon Campus can take a break from college life, eat home-cooked meals and even cuddle with pets now.

Residents of the Foxhall neighborhood are opening their doors to students as part of “Home Away from Home,” a series of events that launched last week with a picnic at the W Street park. Founded and run separately from GW, the program comes months after tragedy struck the campus of about 700 students.

Steve Gardner, the director of the neighborhood group, said he watched ambulances and fire trucks rush to West Hall last semester, and he was shocked to later hear that three students had committed suicide on the quiet campus of mostly freshmen. He said he was concerned for students as a parent, whose son is a junior at Whitman College in Washington state.

“Sometimes maybe they just missed talking to an adult. Sometimes they just missed a home-like situation, maybe a home-cooked dinner,” Gardner said. “Sometimes as a foreign student, you can’t run to Seoul for Thanksgiving. And so for other students, it’s a new environment for them.”

Since the three student deaths, the University has looked to address mental health concerns on the Vern by adding permanent counseling services in the Academic Building. Gardner said he wants Home Away from Home to act as a “supplement effort, not a substitute” to the University Counseling Center and other GW resources.

The neighbors will host events for students throughout the year. Gardner said the program is open to any student who is looking for a family setting, an adult to talk with or an escape from the “daily stresses of campus life.”

The group tried to gauge interest Sept. 21 by holding a barbecue to meet students and ask neighbors to sign up to volunteer their homes. Gardner estimated that 60 students attended, and about 30 residents wrote down their names as volunteers.

Though the group is independent of the University, GW helped with the launch by setting up tables and chairs at the event.

“We appreciate our neighbors’ interest in the well-being of our students,” University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said. “We look forward to our continued positive relations and future discussions about this neighborhood initiative.”

Posters with information about the group have been hung in some of the residential halls on the Vern, and so far three students have reached out to confide in Gardner about experiencing homesickness.

“We want to be helpful if we can, cheer you on if we can. We have a place just for a time out, to find a mentor,” neighbor volunteer Tamra Bentsen said.

As they focus on getting Home Away from Home off the ground, the group’s members do not have a specific event or activity planned for the upcoming Colonials Weekend, when families traditionally flock to campus. Rather, the neighbors are waiting for the students to individually reach out, and they’ll try to respond to the needs of each individual.

Some students have raised concerns that their classmates, especially freshmen, might feel uncomfortable approaching adult neighbors.

“Teenagers do struggle going to an adult with their problems,” said freshman Jenn Pacicco.

Kristie Tucker, a neighbor volunteer, said the group hopes to ease students into the idea by offering group get-togethers, which she said would help them feel more comfortable entering a stranger’s home.

“Rather than being a one-on-one deal, perhaps we could get together as neighbors and say this Sunday night, we would like to welcome our home to 20 students to come over for a chili dinner,” Tucker said.

Clark Lunday, a freshman Vern resident, called the neighbors’ effort “empowering.”

“Kids come to college and they got a lot in their minds and get homesickness. College is incredibly stressful. So I am really glad that the community is stepping up,” Lunday said.

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